When riders fled public transit during the early throes of the pandemic, Local Motors suffered from shelved orders for its 3D-printed autonomous Olli shuttle. When orders returned and then proliferated, the ongoing chip shortage stymied the company's ability to fulfill them.
The double whammy of the coronavirus and supply chain constraints emerged as two central reasons Local Motors shuttered its doors this month, according to two former company executives. But they were not the only reasons.
Costs associated with keeping a human attendant aboard each vehicle made the Ollis more expensive than operators anticipated, resulting in customers less inclined to buy the shuttles as their own pandemic-era budgets were strapped. A quirk in federal regulations favored foreign shuttle providers over domestic manufacturers. The company eked along on a shoestring budget that always stretched limited resources.
Still, the end came as a surprise.
"None of us saw it coming, frankly," said Bob De Kruyff, who was senior vice president of engineering and later vice president of regulatory affairs during his four years with the company. "It was pretty abrupt."
The demise comes amid headwinds for the entire passenger-carrying autonomous vehicle industry. Technical readiness, regulatory hurdles and uncertainty surrounding the business model have prompted delays and, in some cases, pivots toward deliveries and freight applications. And add basic operational hurdles to those challenges.
"The issues with shuttles is that they're slow and have extremely hard braking," said Grayson Brulte, a mobility strategist who runs Brulte & Co. consulting firm. "I don't see a global market for shuttles. Perhaps in a dense, urban environment. ... Shuttles are a low-margin business."